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It’s Not Just Cost That’s Keeping Potential Students From Enrolling At Community Colleges

Community colleges have been struggling with declining enrollment since the pandemic began. A recent article by The Chronicle of Higher Education noted 40% of households that have members with community college plans have postponed or cancelled those college plans — a shocking number, and more than double that of households with members going to a four-year college. Given how effective community colleges are at increasing social mobility in traditionally disenfranchised populations, this could be a social crisis in the making. What’s the solution?

College absolutely costs too much, and the trillions of dollars owed in student debt is an outrage, but discussions of higher education often act as if cost is the only major factor keeping people out of college. Increasingly, there’s evidence that’s just not the case. The Chronicle took a long look at the struggle community colleges are having with declining enrollment, and it’s stunning how little “cost” comes up as a primary deterrent. 

The most common reason cited for cancelled community college plans wasn’t cost or tuition, it was COVID safety. Adults going to community college are often caretakers of other family members, and there’s a much higher risk attached to a COVID outbreak if you’re caring for an elderly parent or don't have the resources to support your children if you get sick. Yet even after safety and health concerns, other factors are talked about more often as a deterrent to community college plans than cost. 

Some students didn’t have access to the technology they needed to take online classes; some didn’t have the support they needed to deal with grief over lost loved ones or mental-health issues. Some students lost access to transportation, and some couldn’t find childcare. Navigating student aid processes came up repeatedly, as did the number of forms that needed to be filled out just to stay on track in a college’s systems — often, the students who needed help the most were the least able to ask for it, or don’t know who to ask.

Community college students, especially working adults from traditionally marginalized populations, have particular needs that are not well served by a system designed in another time for “traditional” students. It seems simple, but it’s still crucial: community colleges need to design their systems for the specific needs of their students, not the other way around.

This is a key to the Calbright model. It’s not just that we’re currently free to adult Californians, it’s that we design our systems to be as simple and accessible as possible, and to provide many “high touch” opportunities to listen to students and address what they are actually struggling with. Our ability to constantly and quickly iterate means we can design our systems to serve our students, rather than require them to jump through hoops to engage with our systems.

This takes additional effort — lots of it — but it’s critical to our mission. And as the leading edge of the learning curve, we’ll share what we learn in the years to come to support other institutions that face common challenges.